How long will this coalition last?

The Lib Dems need to avoid being steamrollered by their Tory partners.

In my recent, much-discussed row with the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes on BBC1's Question Time, I made the mistake of betting on-air that his party's coalition with the Conservatives would collapse within two years. In the ensuing days, as I watched the Cameron-Clegg affair bloom and prosper, and the blissful honeymoon continue, I worried that Hughes might be proved right and this coalition government might survive for the full five years.

But in recent days, my doubts have returned. The Tories have repeatedly reminded their Lib Dem allies that they are in charge, and that the tail does not wag this particular dog. Take yesterday's Queen's Speech.

Here's how today's Times begins its coverage of the speech:

David Cameron tilted the coalition away from the Liberal Democrats with a Queen's Speech that defined tax, immigration and police reform on Conservative terms.

In the main article, Roland Watson, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates highlight

a commitment to lower taxation, the first time since the coalition was formed that such a pledge has been made. Nick Clegg told the Times last week that the government's priority was to rebalance the tax burden, not to reduce it. Last week's coalition programme promised "more competitive, simpler, greener and fairer" tax, but no mention of lower taxation.

And here is the standfirst on the Guardian cover story:

Tory hostility to [electoral] reform could disrupt coalition

In the main article, Patrick Wintour says:

The Conservatives said . . . that the bill on AV would also contain measures to reduce the number of constituencies by as much as 10 per cent and to equalise their size -- a complex, controversial and time-consuming measure that will benefit the Tories.

The Lib Dems say the referendum can be held before the boundary review is complete as long as the legislation has been passed setting the constituency boundary review in train. But some senior Conservative sources were hinting the boundary review would have to be under way before the AV referendum could be staged, so delaying its date.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman writes:

Liberal Democrats and Tories are on collision course over plans to tear up the first-past-the-post election system.

The government published plans yesterday for a bill to hold a referendum on bringing in the Alternative Vote system.

But there was immediate disagreement between the coalition partners over when the public will have their say.

. . . Senior Lib Dems fear that if there is a delay, any nationwide vote on electoral reform would simply be seen as a referendum on the government itself, with voters punishing them at the ballot box.

But Tories declared next May "much too soon" for a referendum on electoral reform, voicing the view that it will not be held before autumn 2011 and "could be later than that".

The Tories are playing a dangerous game. Electoral reform has long been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it was Cameron's unexpected concession of a referendum on AV, on the evening of Monday 10 May, that helped him -- finally! -- seal the deal with Clegg.

It would have been impossible for the Lib Dems to join a coalition with the Tories without the referendum promise. And if, in the coming months, they believe that their Conservative partners are intent on dragging their feet and delaying a vote on electoral reform, the Lib Dems may start looking for the exit. Otherwise, they risk being steamrollered by the Tories -- both in office and at the next, first-past-the-post general election.

On a related note, and as today's Independent reminds us, I was amused to see Simon Hughes, of all people, not quite on board the Cleggeron project in the Commons yesterday:

Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat backbencher on the left of the party, asked the Prime Minister a less-than-friendly question about housebuilding, but the significance was that Mr Hughes referred to "his" government -- Mr Cameron's, that is. The PM replied that he hoped Mr Hughes would come to regard it as "our" government.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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